I keep thinking about the men and women who execute the policy set down by Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions of separating babies, infants, and children from their parents at our southern border. Who are the people who actually take children from their parents and put them in a detention facility? How do they feel about the job they are doing? Some of them may well be brutal sadists. They may even enjoy what they’re doing. But what about the rest of them?
Some of the border agents may have been threatened with losing their job if they don’t take those children from their parents. Working for the border patrol or other agency may well be a good job for them. Perhaps it was hard to find work at all because they had little or no education, or because their skin was not white, or they spoke Spanish with their parents. Losing this job would be a major catastrophe for them and their families so they do what they have to do however upsetting.
For many Americans, real affirmation of their good qualities, their innate competence and decency, is hard to find. They end up not trusting themselves much and looking instead for authorities to direct them. When ordered to take children from parents they may well recoil, but, being accustomed to taking orders, they do it one more time. They have taken orders before and acted in ways they found really difficult in the military or in other quasi-military operations in prisons, or for security firms.
It is easy enough to think up other scenarios in which agents of the government will participate in this brutal policy while hating it because it is brutal.
What makes them willing to go against their own moral sense – their “moral intuitions” as philosophers would say? It might be economic insecurity. It might be moral insecurity in a country that pretty constantly devalues people who have limited formal education, that consistently undermines women’s sense of their own ability, or makes it very difficult for many persons of color to keep their head high and trust their own insights.
Radicals should be challenged by these considerations. We may genuinely and sincerely hate capitalism, but we are complicit in the capitalist system, and those of us who teach philosophy or other subjects are complicit a social system that uses education to enable some and disable many others.
It is worth possibly overstating this point: philosophers get paid to teach some and not others, thus undermining the self-esteem of all those who never went to college, who went to unknown and undistinguished colleges, or who never finished college.
In some way many of us are complicit when children are taken away from their parents at the border. Either because of what we do or because of what we fail to do. We need to remember this point when we, rightly, criticize this policy and when we consider what we can do to stop it.